By Chip Osborne
All industries eventually arrive at best practices that represent the most productive and efficient method to deliver desired results while at the same time minimizing negative impact. Our industry is no different. We have adopted protocols, practices, and products to provide the green lawns and turf our clients and end-users expect.
While it is understood that all practices are subject to change over time, our industry changes have been motivated by the knowledge that the synthetics we use may have unintended consequences at times.
When we use the general term synthetics, we are referring to chemicals that are used as both fertilizers and pesticide control products. Each of these has its own issues and causes for concern that contribute to the five reasons synthetics are no longer considered a best practice for the management of turf.
Five Reasons That the Use of Synthetics is No Longer Considered a Best Practice in Our Industry:
- Stormwater runoff entrance to water bodies-rivers, streams, ponds, lakes, and the ocean
- Groundwater contamination
- Children’s health
- Human health
- Nonproductive influence on the creation of healthy turf systems that include the plant, the soil, and most importantly, the soil biomass.
Storm Water Runoff
When using water-soluble synthetic materials, we run the risk of allowing that material to move off target. Even with best intentions, certain environmental conditions may present themselves that facilitate the movement of these soluble nutrients. If we have a turf system with less than maximum density, we often do not have enough root system to process these nutrients as rapidly as they are being released.
Some synthetic materials are more mobile in the soil than others. Along with other information on the label about a particular pesticide product’s health and environmental effects, we also have information about soil mobility. Some pesticides and fertilizers have the ability to move rapidly downward in the soil and eventually find groundwater.
Science and medicine are now looking at children’s exposure to pesticides very differently than they did in the past. The major cause for concern is not an acute oral or dermal exposure but multiple low-dose exposures over several years that can have a cumulative effect. We must understand that when pesticides go through the US EPA registration process, the research data is based on the lethal dose (LD 50). The exposures that we are now looking at are considered sublethal on an individual basis, but there is concern cumulatively.
Not all mammals react to all pesticides in the same way. It is typically the lawn care pesticide when used at the homeowner level or in the public sector that can affect most people. The use of these materials contributes to the chemical cloud under which we live in this day and age. For the management of grounds and turf, elimination makes sense because it reduces overall chemical exposure. In those areas where we can reduce and eliminate, we should. Turfgrass is one of those areas.
Nonproductive Influence on the System and the Biomass
Synthetic materials do very little to build the soil biomass in a positive way. There is a high concentration of salts in most synthetic fertilizers, contributing to a challenging environment for microbes. Some of the pesticide products that we use can contribute to the minimization of soil biological life. It is the biological life in the soil that is central to a healthy functioning system.
The development of organic lawn care, organic land care, and natural turf management protocols responds to a growing concern around synthetic intervention in the landscape. It is the development of science-based strategies from the natural perspective that provide an alternative to managing from within a chemical framework. These concepts have been developed and are presented as an alternative to chemical management. The absence of synthetics does not mean that we must sacrifice quality.
It Does Mean That We Need to Learn New Protocols
We no longer manage from a product-centered approach. Instead, we adopt a systems-based approach that involves healthy soils, natural organic product inputs based on soil testing, and very specific and revised horticultural practices. Moving forward, people will find that a natural approach to managing the landscape can meet the desired expectation and produce results very similar to landscapes managed from a chemical perspective. As a byproduct of this management protocol, we are able to create healthier landscapes, sequester more significant amounts of carbon, and restore and regenerate challenged soils.
About the author
Chip Osborne has over 45 years of experience as a professional horticulturist and 20 years of experience creating safe, sustainable, and healthy landscapes and athletic fields through natural turf management protocols. He developed a Systems Approach to Natural Turf Management™ as a way to provide quality turf systems in response to chemical concerns. Osborne’s personal investigation and study of conventional and organic soil science practices, and hands-on experimentation, lead him to become one of the country’s leading experts in growing sustainable, natural turf. He is the president of Osborne Organics, a board member of Beyond Pesticides, and a 20-year elected member and chairman of Marblehead, MA Recreation and Parks Commission. Chip co-founded the Living Lawn Project in Marblehead as one of the country’s first natural lawn demonstration sites. It was a nationally recognized living example that beautiful, healthy grass can be grown without pesticides and synthetic fertilizers.
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